What did you just say?

In a world where it seems you can say anything these days, it’s worth stopping to ponder why people can be so hostile and say such terribly mean and horrid things to one another. Since social media came into being, it appears that normal social graces have been tossed aside and some people think that gaining attention is more important than considering the consequences of their words and actions.

Listen to yourself!

What if we speak to ourselves in this way too? Are you aware of the things you tell yourself? Is it possible that you are your own bully? Is your own voice and narrative (in the privacy of your own head) just as hideous as that spewed out by online trolls?

In psychological terms, this is known as our ‘inner critic’ and this inner ‘self-talk’ can be just as devastating to our health, creating not only psychological but physiological damage too. When we say hurtful and angry things to ourselves, our brain perceives a threat/danger, and our fight/flight/freeze response is triggered. Our body is instantly flooded with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, to enable us to react to the perceived danger. Believe it or not, the limbic system which forms part of our ‘old’ reptilian (or lizard brain, as it is sometimes known) or Amygdala (to be more scientific), has not evolved enough to know the difference between perceived and real threat!

Continued and repeated elevated stress hormones can have a long-term negative impact on your health and well-being, which can lead to conditions such as high blood pressure, insomnia, panic attacks and much more besides.

Wherever you go there you are!

So, it’s true then, that the words we use and the way we speak to ourselves (inside our own heads) can be just as damaging as if someone else said it to us? Yes absolutely, and it could be argued even worse, because ultimately, we can escape from other people and go home, but we can’t escape from ourselves! As Jon Kabat-Zinn so eloquently put it in his seminal book title, Wherever You Go, There You Are.

So, when our inner critic, constantly berates us and calls us terrible things, such as fat, stupid, idiot, ugly etc., and our brain can’t tell the difference between us saying it and someone else saying it, what are the consequences? The upshot is that believing these erroneous thoughts to be true, we act in accordance with them, such as avoiding people, staying indoors, not engaging in the world, etc., and therefore our world shrinks; which can lead to depression, anxiety, panic attacks, agoraphobia, eating disorders, self-harming and potentially suicidal ideation at the extreme end of the spectrum.

What to do?

The first stage in helping yourself is to become aware of your thoughts and get to know your inner critic’s voice and narrative. Next, write them down, because when things are written down it helps us to see things more objectively.

Draw five columns on a sheet of landscape A4 paper, as follows:

  1. Situation (e.g who/what/when where – who were you with, what were you doing, where were you, when did it happen?)
  2. Emotions or Bodily Sensations (what did you feel?) – Rate the feeling intensity from 0% – 100%
  3. Self-Critical Thoughts (what was going through your mind at the time) – Rate the strength of your belief in each thought from 0% – 100%
  4. Alternative Perspective(s) (what other ways could you have looked at these thoughts?) e.g. Is there evidence to support my critical thought?, will being so critical of myself help me in the long run?
  5. Outcome (after looking at Alternative Perspective how do you feel now?) (rate degree of belief(s) in each thought now)

Keep working through your negative, critical beliefs until your outcomes are much better.

Creating Healthier Self-Talk

Once you become aware of your inner-critic’s narrative, you can address it. Speak to yourself more kindly, as if you were talking to a good friend. Thereafter, stay aware and start to change your inner voice narrative and aim to silence that inner critic once and for all. It won’t be easy, but it will most certainly be worth the effort.

When you catch yourself having automatic negative thoughts, write down better alternative self-talk and repeat it to yourself . It needs to be written in the first person, e.g. I am. Also write it in the present moment, not past or future. Keep it positive, not negative. For example, ‘I am doing my best and am working each day to be more accepting of things’ or ‘I am a fallible human being and sometimes make mistakes, but that’s okay, I am on my own journey and learning every day.’ Don’t say, for example, ‘I won’t call myself fat’, rather say something (using the first person, present moment, positive rule just mentioned) like, ‘I accept my body as it is and am making healthier choices each day ‘. 

Also, avoid saying things to yourself that are in the realms of fantasy and never likely to be true, we can’t kid ourselves, and if we try it won’t work, so it’s important to be realistic. Also, avoid using ‘absolute’ words, such as ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘perfect’. The reason for this is that it’s impossible and irrational to think that anybody can ‘always’ do or be something or that something bad will ‘never’ happen in our lives. If in doubt, ask yourself, ‘…is this a rational thought or thing to say?’

Additionally, ‘all or nothing’ thinking is unhelpful, so keep it flexible, because we are fallible human beings and sometimes do make mistakes or don’t stick to our goals but beating yourself up about that is only going to add to the problem!

The bottom line is, we can’t change other people, but we can change ourselves. As the old saying, ‘in a world where you can be anything, be kind!’… and I would add, particularly to yourself.

Help is at hand!

If you would like more help with any of the above then please get in touch with myself, another mental health provider or your doctor. We are here for you and want to help! 

Alternatively, if you feel you need more urgent help, you may find these contact numbers useful, especially outside of normal working hours.

  • NHS non-emergency 111
  • Samaritans 116 123
  • HOPElineUK 0800 068 41 41 (suicide prevention for young people up to the age of 35)
  • SANE 0300 304 7000 4.30-10.30pm (for to anyone affected by mental illness, including family, friends and carers)
  • CALM 0800 58 58 58 5pm-midnight (this charity aims to prevent male suicide.)

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis and need urgent support, call 999 or contact your local Emergency Department/ A & E.